Monday, March 19, 2012

My Weekend in the Country (Day 2)

*Interested in learning more about Portuguese food and wine with me? Check out my An American In Portugal Tours, and my blog's new home!*

In Day 1 of My Weekend in the Country, I explored ancient Roman ruins and caves with Rita and her family around the tiny village of Avecasta near Ferreira de Zêzere along with enjoying some delicious home- cooked food and strong country wine!  Well, my second day in the Portuguese countryside was packed with even more delicious food and wine and a visit to one of the most picturesque aldeias in area, Dornes, a hilltop village settled on a small peninsula stretched out in the middle of the Rio Zêzere
Sunday morning I woke up completely relaxed and refreshed from a wonderfully peaceful night's sleep under the moonlight and comforting sounds of nature.  I stepped out onto the balcony from the room to breathe in some of that still-chilly clean morning country air! :)

When Rita and I came down for some (late) breakfast we found her parents already starting to prepare our lunch and dinner!  A freshly killed and plucked chicken from the hen house greeted us in the summer kitchen, all ready to be popped into the oven to roast for dinner.  Well, all except the feet, Rita's mother said she would put them into a pot for canja  or chicken soup ;)  

Outside, Rita's father was readying the stone oven for the chicken, as well as our lunch, which was to be a classic Portuguese dish, bacalhau assado com batatas a murro -roasted salt cod with "punched potatoes".  

 It first starts with putting whole potatoes and onions (these were fresh from the family's garden!) to roast with just a generous helping of coarse sea salt, followed a little bit later by adding the fillets of salt cod to roast to finish all together.   This time, the chicken was also added to roast, since there was plenty of space :)  And you could just imagine the heavenly aroma of all those caramelizing onions, potatoes and meat filling the whole neighborhood, we couldn't wait to dig in!

But in order to finish this dish, the bacalhau had to be shredded and the potatoes "punched" down and mixed together with the onions, along with chopped garlic, olive oil  and vinegar, which all of them also happened to be homemade!  (The family has a fairly large plot of both grape vines and olive trees in the next village over and they get their olives pressed at the village's own community press, this is actually quite common for most locals).

Then the "punched" potato mixture is combined with the shredded bacalhau to complete the dish!

Here is a short video I got of Rita with her parents putting the finishing touches to the dish and making sure the seasoning is just perfect, as in making sure there was plenty of garlic hehe :)  I am asking questions about the recipe as well as remarking how good it smells  ;)  

Then we all settled down on the outdoor picnic table for an absolutely delicious lunch!  The family's killer white wine accompanied our bacalhau and was perfectly chilled this time to take the edge off haha.   As for dessert, they kept it simple: fresh strawberries in season macerated in açucar amarelo ("yellow sugar"-like a very light brown sugar) and Port wine, I was a very happy girl :)
After seriously pigging out at lunch, we needed some time to digest so luckily we had a nice little drive ahead of us to visit the beautiful aldeia of Dornes.  We drove right up to the top of the hill in the village and this was my first view of the Rio Zêzere, surrounded by lush evergreen and aromatic eucalyptus mountains :)
It was a gorgeous afternoon to be by the river!
The river had a lovely shimmer from the sun and all you could hear was the warm breeze whipping through hair :)
All we could do for about the first part of our time was relax and enjoy the view!
The original settlement of Dornes can be traced back as early as the 12th century, even before the country of Portugal was founded.   At the top of the village is the ruins of the Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Pranto,  a 15th century church built for Queen Isabel.  It has a peculiar pentagonal tower, that's unlike any other found in the country.
The view from where the church is, as you can see the village doesn't stretch too much beyond the peninsula!
A 14th century crucifix shrine decorated with traditional blue and white Portuguese azulejos (tiles).  Love the pink wildflowers!
We headed down to the water's edge where the boats were launched to get our feet wet....
Can you tell that my feet are submerged in water?  I couldn't believe how crystal clear the water was!  Especially at the boat launch area!  When the water was perfectly still, you would almost believe I'm just standing on a regular cobblestone path!
Ah there you go!  Now you can see the water! ;)  And you know what the best part was?  Rita told me that this is where Lisbon's tap water is sourced from!   I knew there was a reason it had always tasted so good! Oh and don't worry, my feet were clean hehe ;)
We spent the rest of the afternoon driving along the mountains around the river and exploring different but equally beautiful parts of it.  When we got back to the house, there was a surprise waiting for me.....a giant basket of nesperas (Japanese plums) that Rita's aunt had just picked to take home with me!  The nesperas were in peak season too, and even though I didn't find them to be that good before when I had bought them at the supermarket in Lisbon, there was such a difference in flavor with these all natural ones!  I now have a new appreciation for this fruit because of them :)
And of course, we were just in time for an early dinner before we had to head back to Lisbon.  The roast chicken was waiting for us, along with some more of those fresh picked grelos (cabbage greens) from the garden, sauteed with some garlic and onions, also from the garden and a simple salad of lettuce and onions with a little homemade olive oil and vinegar.  Again, our meal was paired with some of the family's homemade red wine, chilled just enough to enjoy on a warm evening.  So I was sitting there for the first time, with food and drink that was completely organic and locally grown and produced, and it was one of the most deliciously satisfying meals I've had to date.  And truly, my stomach has never felt so good after a meal!  My digestive tract was being spoiled by so much lovely "clean" and healthy food!
I will never forget the wonderfully warm hospitality Rita's family and neighbors treated me during my stay there, and of course I will never forget the simple yet amazingly delicious Portuguese food they filled my belly, and my heart with.  But what's even better, I have been so lucky as to have been invited back by Rita's family to stay another weekend with them and bring a friend if I want, to do it all over again!   I hope my story of my weekend in the Portuguese countryside will inspire you to go out and explore this beautiful country beyond the cities and towns and experience what is truly memorable :)

Cheers to good food, wine and friends! 

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